Shaar Aliyah (literally: the Gate of Ascent) is both a physical place and a site of memory. In the 1950s it was a transition camp for immigrants to Israel whose ships had disembarked in Haifa. One of them was a little girl, Chava Alberstein, who had arrived with her family from Poland and would become a famous singer. Four decades later she recounted her experience there in a song whose opening line encapsulates the politics of modern memory and history: ‘This story begins from the end’ (Et ha-sippur ha-zeh mathilim me-ha-sof). In the revised edition of his masterpiece, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson proposes a strikingly similar formula. There he argues that the crucial difference between the biography of modern persons and of modern nations is that whereas the former is written ‘down time’, the latter must of necessity be fashioned ‘up time’—that is, must ‘start from an originary present’. The result is that ‘World War II begets World War I; out of Sedan comes Austerlitz; the ancestor of the Warsaw Uprising is the state of Israel’.
Idith Zertal’s book is a powerful demonstration of the force of this claim. Death and the Nation covers the history of Zionism in Palestine from 1920 to 1995. Essentially a collection of essays, it continues on a wider canvas the themes of her monographic work, From Catastrophe to Power: Holocaust Survivors and the Emergence of Israel, of which an English translation was published in 1998; it is to be hoped her new book will also soon be available to non-Hebrew speakers. In Death and the Nation, Zertal analyses the ways in which the events of what she calls ‘the short Zionist century’ were experienced, narrated and mobilized in the building of the Israeli nation-state. Her focus is on the political, military and cultural elites of the Labour movement that ran the country until 1977, and those of the Right that joined them in power thereafter. Zertal ranges across an impressive variety of materials in documenting the creation of a hegemonic national memory and historical consciousness: from official archives to poetry, from memoirs to court proceedings and laws, and from sites of memory like Yad Vashem to placards showing Rabin dressed as an SS officer. She brings to bear on these a theoretically informed literature on such issues as modern collective memory and comparative nationalism (Pierre Nora and Benedict Anderson are reference points).
Zertal herself is one of a small group of radically critical Israeli scholars who were born close to the establishment of the state or in the first decade of its existence and, generally—though not invariably—grew up in the most privileged environments of the labour movement, either collective agricultural settlements or relatively affluent neighbourhoods of Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. Zertal’s own background lies in Ein Shemmer, one of the best-known kibbutzim of Ha-Shomer Ha-Tsair (Young Guardsman), a movement of originally Marxist outlook. But her work has emerged out of the intellectual milieu of the Israeli journal Theory and Criticism, which began to appear in the early 1990s under the auspices of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, and soon became the chief scholarly forum for radical critiques of Zionism, whether ‘anti-’ or ‘post-’ in character. The horizons of this journal have been at once quite universal (informed by such thinkers as Marx, Gramsci, Foucault, Said, and the Subaltern Studies tradition) and very local (operating as a dissenting voice in Israel). Zertal has been an integral part of this project. Death and the Nation draws on and contributes to it.
The regularity with which the process of constructing nation-states has tapped into the infinite reservoir of past wars, triumphs or catastrophes to build collective identities is a familiar theme in the scholarly literature on nationalism. Selective uses of the past have time and again been mustered to sustain an ‘originary present’, as Ernest Renan noted already in his famous essay ‘What Is A Nation?’ of 1882, which stressed the simultaneous acts of remembering and forgetting necessary to forge one. Zertal’s study, however, shows something more than this—a syndrome that seems to be specific to Israel. For here an ideological appropriation of the past by the present was not so much a retrospective operation, as a chronologically intertwined process. For within the ‘short Zionist century’ that Death and the Nation covers dwell both the acts of remembering/forgetting and the actual occurrence of what was remembered/forgotten. It is one thing to instruct Frenchmen and women at the end of the nineteenth century that they ‘ought to have already forgotten’ the massacres of the Cathars, or Israeli youth that they ought to identify with the collective suicide of the Massada zealots. It was quite another to mobilize, for analogous purposes, the Judeocide of the 1940s in the 1950s and 1960s. The difference extends from the architects and objects of collective memories or state narratives, to those who can now study them.
Zertal opens her account with a reflection on three events whose occurrence, recounting and appropriation predated the founding of the Israeli state: the fall of Tel Hai in 1920, the Warsaw Uprising of 1943 and the Exodus affair of 1947. The latter two, of course, are famous enough in the West. It is the first, however, which is of founding symbolic significance for the construction of the Zionist state in Palestine. One of four early Jewish settlements in northeastern Galilee, Tel Hai was overrun by Arab fighters amid local resistance to the French drive to oust Faysal from Damascus (the British relocated him to Baghdad) during the inter-imperialist carve-up of the Middle East after the First World War. A well-known veteran of the Tsarist Army, Yosef Trumpeldor, was mortally wounded in its defence, expiring during evacuation to an adjacent kibbutz. Zionism’s most gifted pen, Vladimir Jabotinsky, ancestor of today’s Likud, instantly converted Tel Hai and Trumpeldor—whose last words in Hebrew were allegedly: ‘Never mind, it’s good to die for our country!’—into embodiments of the Zionist enterprise: redemption of the land and its defence to the death.
Zertal’s interpretation of these episodes offers intriguing insights into the way in which successive defeats and losses were registered as mythical triggers for national mobilization, and the tensions between what actually happened and what was remembered of them. Here she makes creative use of the work of Ernst Cassirer (on what sort of events lend themselves to being rendered symbolically), Carlo Ginzburg (on Croce’s approach to history, which was crucial to Jabotinsky’s world-view) and George Mosse (on the cult of the fallen in battle as a modern civic religion). Throughout, she highlights the dramatic impact of the temporal proximity of the actual events to their political appropriation.
Next Zertal turns to the work of memory as it was officially expressed and embedded in the formative legislation of the 1950s, the first decade of Israeli statehood. Here her contribution is of particular significance. That the Judeocide played a major role in the fight to establish a Jewish state in Palestine in the years 1945–48 is well known. Less so are the ways in which the newly founded state appropriated the authority to remember the Shoah, to speak on behalf of its victims (those who had perished and those who survived), and to teach the nation and the world its lessons. The status of Israel as the sole proprietor of the Shoah is now taken for granted by most of the world as a natural and normal state of affairs. Zertal’s meticulous exploration of the processes that have made this annexation seem obvious undermine them even before her explicit criticism enters the fray.